Has there ever been a TV show based on a comic book promoted so heavily as “The Walking Dead?” Broadcast by the critically acclaimed AMC network, with the creative backing of a multiple Oscar-nominee and an impossibly fortuitous Halloween air date, is there any way that “The Walking Dead” can possibly live up to its hype?
“The Walking Dead”
Season 1, Episode 1: “Days Gone Bye”
Directed by: Frank Darabont
Written by: Frank Darabont
Starring: Andrew Lincoln, Jon Bernthal, Sarah Wayne Callies, Laura Holden, Jeffrey DeMunn, Steven Yuen, Chandler Riggs
Music by: Bear McCreary
Airing on AMC
Does “The Walking Dead” deliver? Unequivocally, yes. If anything, Frank Darabont has improved upon Tony Moore and Robert Kirkman’s already top-notch work. The first episode of “The Walking Dead” brings the Eisner Award-winning comic book to (un)life, creating an experience that will be entertaining for fans of the comic and newcomers alike. There’s nothing else like it on television. Every element of production, from the acting to the set design to the direction, fits together flawlessly, resulting in one great episode of TV.
The basic beginning story of Rick Grimes from the comic book is retold in “Days Gone Bye,” but Frank Darabont wisely makes a few narrative changes to expand the character’s depth. Grimes’ familial troubles are put front and center in the very first dialogue exchange, and his interactions with Morgan and Duane Jones are the focal point of this first episode. Andrew Lincoln does a terrific job as Rick Grimes, looking and sounding the part of a Southern lawman. From the first feeble steps from a hospital bed to his frenzied flight from a zombie horde, Lincoln convincingly makes Rick Grimes feel like a real person confronting an unreal world.
Special attention must be given to actors Lennie James and Adrian Kali Turner in their roles as Morgan and Duane Jones. In one of the changes from the comic, the story of the first two survivors Rick Grimes encounters is expanded greatly. Lennie James gives an agonizingly nuanced performance as a loving father who retains his faith even when confronted with real horror. Young actors are, as a rule, pretty bad, but Adrian Kali Turner gives his small role gravitas. When Duane Jones was crying after seeing his zombified mother, it wasn’t the affected sobs of a neophyte actor, but the real tears of a tortured son. Darabont choose wisely to focus on the Jones’ story. It creates a meaningful counterpoint to Grimes’ relationship with his family. The three actors together craft some wonderful moments, from a nail-bitingly tense first night to a joyful encounter with hot water.
A Hollywood Look for a Small Screen Debut
Many beats in the story are familiar to zombie movie watchers, from character moments like dealing with a loved one turned ghoul to visual cues such as an eerily twisting doorknob. But Frank Darabont keeps these moments fresh, meaningful and scary, in no small part due to his well-developed visual sensibilities. He’s not afraid to let scenes stretch out to build tension, or let the camera linger on disturbing images like a staring eyeball or an especially gruesome zombie. Such elements can be old hat in horror films, but in “The Walking Dead” they felt classic rather than cliché. He also doesn’t skimp on the gore; entrails abound, and his zombies look just as horrifying as Tony Moore’s lovingly rendered walking corpses.
The effective visuals are due to a lot of seemingly minor details that go a long way towards giving “The Walking Dead” a feeling of verisimilitude. From a row of bullet holes stitched across a hospital wall to scraps of roadkill littering the roadway, it’s clear that attention was paid to every last element on screen. There’s a great tactile feel that exudes from the screen; flies buzz around graffiti scrawled in blood, cicadas buzz in the Southern heat, dried flowers crumble on a hospital nightstand. All these small moments add up to a world that you can taste, smell and feel. Composer Bear McCreary also gets points for crafting a score that’s spare, yet compelling in the same vein as his masterful earlier work on “Battlestar Galatica” and “The Sarah Connor Chronicles.”
“They’re coming to get you, Barbara!”
I read the first few issues of The Walking Dead when it first came out (seven years ago!) and haven’t read them since. I wanted to receive the premiere on its own merits as a work of television, without any prejudice from the comic. Having now re-read those issues in advance of writing this review, I must say the first episode holds up against the first issue extremely well. Where it differs from the original, it does so with the aim of deepening the story. The TV show is respectful to the comic book, but not afraid to alter course to produce a surprise or evoke a greater emotional response.
Not only does “Days Gone Bye” compare favorably to its source material, but it also stands strong in the crowded field of zombie entertainment. One episode in, “The Walking Dead” looks like it’s already on track to stand alongside the giants of the genre such as Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days Later. The best zombie movies are ultimately less about the zombies, and more about the relations between the characters. They’re about how people deal with a capricious and chaotic universe, and what happens when the comforts of civilization are suddenly gone. “The Walking Dead” hasn’t gotten into the real meat of its story yet, but in this first episode, those issues are already being broached thoughtfully and interestingly. It hasn’t broken any new ground in the zombie genre, but what “The Walking Dead” does do is tell its story very very well.
“The Walking Dead” Episode 1 contains at least nine headshots (I lost track), three escaped prisoners, two sniped zombies, one half-disemboweled zombie, one fully-disemboweled horse, one sacrilegiously totaled 1969 GTO Judge and one attempted shovel murder. Five out of five stars. Check it out.